Contemporary America’s main problem has been defined by many as “addiction”: addiction to technology, to pain medication, or to the freedom of non-commitment. But these are only symptoms of a deeper root-cause.
The perils of misdiagnosis afflict many patients. An elderly gentleman comes in with stomach pain, only to be sent home with antacid medication and advice to avoid certain foods. After three months of persistent pain, weight loss, and fatigue, he is diagnosed with stage four colon cancer. For this gentleman, and for America, focusing on symptoms over root-cause can prove deadly.
Since the turn of the century, Americans have been suffering “Deaths of Despair” at an unprecedented rate. Suicide is now the second leading cause of death for American teenagers and the tenth leading cause of death for Americans overall. Equally harrowing, drug overdose is the leading cause of death for Americans under the age of fifty.
While the statistics are daunting, the reality is devastating. In every age group, and across every geographic region, mothers are finding themselves childless, husbands are suddenly without a wife, and sisters are left without a brother. Americans are having less sex and fewer children (historically, signs of diminished hope), anger defines politics, and a silent feeling of dissatisfaction permeates American life. Although Americans are materially prosperous, our psychological and spiritual lives are in freefall.
The diagnosis: loneliness.
Just last week a young woman who intentionally severed her airway and spinal cord with an 8-inch kitchen knife saw me in the emergency room. She cited the isolation associated with caring for her ill grandmother, and the paucity of individuals with whom she could meaningfully discuss such challenges, as the drivers of her despair. Unfortunately, patients like her are far too common. Loneliness, like hers, is defined by an absence of meaningful relationships that now plagues 40% of all Americans.
What caused this loneliness? The answer is not as simple as “blame social media.” Technology is both symptom and cause — much like changes in religious participation, family structure, and the economy. The unifying theme, however, is that we no longer live in community.
Compared to 25 years ago, Americans spend half as much time at the dinner table and don’t invite neighbors over nearly as often. Participation in community organizations has plummeted. The resulting lack of connection and “social capital” is proving fatal.
The solution: be present.
Close your computer and engage your colleague while waiting for a meeting to start. Re-define “FaceTime” by opting for a shared coffee over a phone call. Check in on the widow down the street. Acknowledge the power, and importance, of civic involvement. Recognize the sacred space of the home by designating “tech-free” spaces. Reclaim the dinner table. In short, cultivate the virtues of selflessness and sacrifice
This unique American moment asks not for a call to arms, but for a call to neighborliness.
FRANCIE HART BROGHAMMER, MD is the chief psychiatry resident at UC Irvine Medical Center, doing clinical work and research examining the social, relational, and spiritual determinants of mental health. In addition to speaking nationwide on these topics, she serves as an American Psychiatric Association Leadership Fellow and is a member of the UC Irvine Medical Ethics Committee. Francie can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.